As the Twitter ban in Nigeria continues to ripple across the economy, affecting millions of entrepreneurs who used the platform to propel sales, an increasing number are turning to VPNs and speaking out agains the ban.
“Ultimately, these decisions hurt the economy, hurt our reputation as a country and our ability to pull in investments.” said Tomiwa Aladekomo, CEO of Big Cabal Media, parent company of TechCabal and Zikoko, the media company where I work. The company has about 60 employees and about 200,000 social media followers. “The ban is neither legal nor enforceable so both our publications haven’t stopped tweeting and they have taken editorial stances on the issue.”
The ban, announced on June 4, caught the world’s attention, coming two days after the social media platform deleted President Muhammadu Buhari’s tweets. Twitter said the tweets threatened violence of Nigerian citizens, an act Twitter considers a violation of its rules.
After the announcement, the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) issued a directive to all telecommunication and Internet Service Providers instructing them to restrict their users’ access to the social media platform. Actions to censor specific sites or blanket entire geographies are becoming increasingly common. LINKS here. https://www.google.com/amp/s/mobile.reuters.com/article/amp/idINKCN2DH07W
NetBlocks, which tracks Internet governance, estimated that the Twitter shutdown costs the Nigerian economy more than ₦2 billion, or $6 million, a day.
However, the West African nation with a population of 209 million is home to a large community of sophisticated Internet users. Within minutes many Nigerians had downloaded VPNs, which changed their locations to different countries that have access to Twitter.
As a result, the Attorney General of the Federation, Abubakar Malami (SAN), threatened to prosecute Nigerians who circumvented the ban using VPN. He has now disowned the statement, saying he was taken out of context.
Because it’s so easy to publish content on Twitter, the platform has become a source of information for many Nigerians, including young Nigerians seeking jobs and opportunity. Oftentimes, it provides a form of justice for Nigerians seeking redress.
In October 2020, Nigerians came together to protest police brutality and bad governance with a blanket movement called #ENDSARS, which started shortly after Nigeria’s 60th independence. The protest gained momentum across the world. International human rights organizations, renowned celebrities, political figures and big tech companies lent their voices.
A women-led organisation, Feminist Coalition, raised funds to keep the protest alive. At least $160,000 was raised in the space of two weeks on Twitter, according to the documents on their website: https://feministcoalition2020.com.
However, on October 20, the ENDSARS protest peaked after the military attacked peaceful protesters, and protesters were arrested across Nigeria.
The physical protests dissipated, but online agitation grew even louder — a series of events that observers say led to the government’s crackdown. The ban has been criticized as a violation of the fundamental human right to expression, guaranteed by Section 39 of the Nigerian constitution.
“The right to freedom of expression is further articulated by other laws such as the Nigerian Communication Act,” Olusola Oyeyemi, tech attorney, Pearl and Pearson LP, explained. “The Twitter ban fetters the right of Nigerians to express themselves through opinions, views and criticism of the government which is part of the practice in a democratic society.”
Twitter declined further comment but has said, “We will work to restore access for all those in Nigeria who rely on Twitter to communicate and connect with the world. #KeepitOn.”
The Companies Hurt The Most
Meanwhile, the tiniest businesses are those that have been hurt the most. Even if they can find VPNs, some are costly; and those that are free may be more vulnerable to hacking. Meanwhile, some remain in fear of defying the ban.
Olapeju Jolaoso has been selling her skincare and hair care products on Twitter since 2014, when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Ilorin. She started the online business from her family house in Lagos, tweeting about her products, which range from $5 to $40 and offering skincare advice. Gradually, Jolaoso built a robust clientele, all acquired through social media. Since then, she has continued to grow the business as a one-man team with the help of dispatch companies within Nigeria.
“Before the pandemic, my business made about ₦200,000 monthly revenue but after the lockdown, it dropped to 45% (of that). The worst part is the cost of production keeps increasing,” she said. “The Twitter ban will make things worse. I can’t tweet with my business account because I am afraid of being nabbed by the government.”
Rotimi Alabi, founder of a private culinary service, Chez Ro, chose Twitter as the only social media platform he uses to sell his special home cooked meals to eager customers. His team is made up of a full time employee and three contractual employees. He says on a good week, he is able to generate ₦200,000 in revenue making sales on Twitter, or about $480.
“About 99% of my business interactions and orders come from Twitter. The negligible 1% that’s left, I’d attribute to Instagram and WhatsApp combined.” He says his initial reaction to the ban was despair. This is one of the many reactions business owners shared after the ban was executed.
There have also been rumors that the government could block access to all social media sites or a total shutdown of internet services in Nigeria.
Some businesses have taken to alternative means for sales and conversions using other social media platforms, like Instagram and Tiktok. For example, Smiley Socks, an e-commerce brand, has used Twitter to grow brand love around their colorful socks since 2019.
“The vitality on Twitter, which is faster than other platforms is why we got to make friends with our followers faster, make sales and grow as a company.” founder Habib Wasulu explained.
“Since the ban, we have tweeted a couple of times. We even launched a new product and it was announced on our Twitter page. The engagement we got was low compared to what we used to get. Twitter’s contribution to sales dropped to 20%. Now, we’re planning how to maximize other fast platforms like TikTok and Instagram.”
The drop in engagement and impressions is something Alabi of Chez Ro also notes. He says, “We’ve been trying to move the traffic to Instagram but that seems like a Herculean task. They’re completely different spaces, with different modes of operation and business models when it comes down to it.”
Local and international organizations as well as countries such as the United States, Canada and the Republic of Ireland have appealed to the Nigerian Government to reconsider the ban as it is a violation of the fundamental human right of free expression and access to information which is a pillar of democracy in Nigeria and around the world.
It is still unclear what the government intends to do moving forward. “Nigeria is unpredictable,” said Wasulu of Smiley Socks.
But Alabi said he believes that, “oppression can only last for so long — the oppressors get tired or the oppressed fight back.”